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How to get good at doing nothing and why it's good for you

When it comes to doing nothing, we seem to be separated into two different groups, those that are really good at it, monks and lazy teenagers for example, and those who are terrible at it, like high achievers and the overly conscientious.

I'm guessing that if you're reading this, you fall into the latter category. You've been guilted into over-working by the Protestant work ethic, even though we might not even know what that is. The Protestant work ethic says that hard work, self-discipline and being frugal will earn you a place in heaven, whereas lolling around in a haystack just passing the time will surely earn you a ticket to the 'bad place', which is the main reason we all work so hard these days.

But there's a good argument both philosophical and scientific, that says spending downtime doing nothing can be extremely good for you and make you more productive. The Dutch have a word for it, niksen.

What is doing nothing?

When we're doing nothing, are we just sitting, perhaps not thinking? That's a big ask and those monks I mentioned before spend many years trying to get to that state. I don't recommend trying. It's better to define doing nothing as

Passing the time in non-productive ways

Examples of this are meditating (which is not doing nothing since you will still have thoughts to deal with), walking, listening to music (without doing something else at the same time), and daydreaming. Cooking might be relaxing for some, but it doesn't count as doing nothing since you have been busy producing delicious baking or casseroles.

Also, doing nothing could be thought of as uni-tasking rather than multitasking, of which I thoroughly disapprove. The brain finds it hard to focus on more than one thing at a time, and multi-tasking is stressful, regardless of how proud you might be that you can do it.

Doing nothing may not be stress-free

Apart from the work ethic, if you're prone to stress and anxiety, the brain takes the opportunity to serve us up every worry, and potential catastrophe that might possibly occur, or that has already occurred. This is why psychology prescribes the strategy of 'action and distraction' as a way of keeping these thoughts at bay.

Boredom can be experienced by anyone, not just those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It's a state where you find it hard to articulate why you feel the way you do. There's nothing to do, and this is somehow challenging. You feel listless, uninterested, and it's uncomfortable. People who have a lack of self-awareness often become bored easily, so mindfulness is a skill to cultivate.

The benefits of doing nothing

When we shift into the relaxed state of non-productivity or niksen, our brain moves to a different state of activity, it recharges, our memory improves, and our creative brain has more space to shine. It's also useful to alternate periods of high productivity with periods of rest. Grinding on working harder and harder can result in lowered productivity. When we implement periods of doing nothing we feel less stressed and replenished, contributing to our overall well being.

Getting better at doing nothing

First, if we're really bad at doing nothing, we need to learn to endure the discomfort of that. Our brain fills with thoughts, we feel twitchy, it's uncomfortable. We need to learn to see the discomfort just as a phenomenon, rather than rush to do something. In the skill of mindfulness, we can detach ourselves from the discomfort and notice it as interesting, rather than awful or terrible. This is hard at first, but persisting can reap tremendous rewards. Gradually we find ourselves more and more able to do nothing.

Ways of doing nothing

  • Sitting and breathing or meditating. This is perhaps the most challenging form of unproductiveness. Find a method (contact me and I will send you my Looking and Breathing method). Start with only 5 minutes at a time and gradually extend the time. Allow your thoughts to flow without judgement. Just note any intrusive, negative thoughts that might come up as interesting. Persist, and these will fade away. The abdominal breathing that you adopt with meditative practices helps you to relax too.
  • Daydreaming. Letting your brain rest and your thoughts flow can be the most rewarding kind of 'doing nothingness'. Gaze out the window and see where the thoughts take you. This kind of 'stream of consciousness' can be not only relaxing but creative.
  • Listening. This can be listening to music, or even podcasts. Adopt the challenge of listening to a whole symphony and becoming completely immersed in it. Or listen to an entire album (one of my favourites for this is 'Dark Side of the Moon' by Pink Floyd).
  • Walking. Walking is a wonderfully unproductive activity, even if there's a purpose to it, like going shopping. The walk in itself is unproductive. People often have their most creative ideas and thoughts while they're walking.

In your pursuit of being better at doing nothing, don't be guilted into being defensive if people comment on your new habit. Even your boss. Politely tell them that doing nothing is a skill and that it's good for your overall well being as well as your productivity at work and they should try it.

Good luck with your endeavours. As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback. Is there something you do that makes it easier to do nothing? I'd love to hear about it.